Humans love naming things. Three of the major religions on earth believe either that God assigned Adam the job of naming every creature or instead revealed their names to him. The creatures were not consulted and we doubt that Adam named house flies which probably did not exist in the Garden although there are a great many around here at the moment.
Naming things, all things, is a form of shorthand that enables us to talk and think about them, and to study them. Science requires naming. Now we even have an International Commission on naming animals. Others name objects in space. Others specialized ones name birds, reptiles, rocks, two-legged beings, etc.
Animals don't need names for each other. Humans do, so we use labels. And it is important to keep that in mind: We are labeling, not describing, other beings and organisms.
Which brings us to our second point. It is by now well documented that our species is losing contact with nature. Often this separation from the wild world is attributed to the massive increase in urbanization and the concomitant loss of wild lands. In the last one hundred years the planet on which we live and depend has lost more forest than in the previous nine thousand. Almost eight billion people are alive as you read this; three hundred thirty-five million in the United States alone. In 1950 seventy-one percent of all humans lived in rural areas. By 2050 seventy percent of us will live in cities. Eighty-four percent of Americans already do.
But another cause plays a role too. Beginning in about 1950 in the industrialized world our entertainment moved inside. Television became the primary entertainer. Video games arrived in the 1970s and the internet began consuming much of our leisure time by the late 1990s, a trend that has accelerated in the twenty-first century. Some children today can name more Pokemon characters than wildlife species.
We spend around ninety per cent of our time indoors, a massive change for our species. For our first 2.5 million years we spent practically all of our time outdoors.
Our loss of connection with the wild world accounts for the attraction of landscape photography and painting, not only for the artists who go outside to work but mainly for people who enjoy and collect such art. Simply looking at a landscape photo improves our frame of mind and lowers our blood pressure.
But landscape photography is not our subject this month. Rather we'd like to introduce you to some ways modern technology can help us reconnect with the outdoors by fulfilling our appetite for naming and identifying the beings that live out there.
Since we're staring at screens anyway we might as well take them outside and identity some creatures.
To identify something is to pay attention to it.
Let's begin with birds. No matter where you live, you can walk outside, probably right now and hear a bird. Even if you can't spot it, you can identify it by its song. All you need is Merlin. It's a free app from Cornell University's famed ornithology department. Record a bird song and it will tell you what it is. Spot a bird and Merlin will identify it for you. Whether you record or photograph a bird Merlin will tell you what it is and that is true even if you are offline. You aren't tethered to wi-fi.
Next is “Seek” which will help id about anything else alive. Wildlife, plants, fungi, butterflies, amphibians, even bugs. All you have to do is go outside, open the app, take a photo of whatever you are curious about and the app will tell you. No internet connection required.
Let's not forget rocks. Yes, there are apps for identifying rocks. Here are two, both free. The one we picked is “Rock Identifier Stone Finder” developed by Phuong Bui. We picked that one because it collects no data from its users.
The other free app that gets lots of recommendations is the similarly named “Rock Identifier Stone: ID”. It looks like it may be the better app but we were not happy when we saw that it collects a lot of personally identified data and we object to giving away our privacy for free.
A third possibility but only for android users is “Rock Check”. That is an app developed by the National Science Teachers Association and gets good reviews.
We won't forget clouds either. Want to know the official name of the clouds in Jake's, Jory's, or Satoru's photos above? There is an app for that published by UCAR which manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research on behalf of the National Science Foundation
We'll end with the universe. Star finding apps include Star Walk 2, SkyView Lite, Stellarium Mobile, and Sun Surveyor. For photographers we give you both PhotoPills and The Photographers Ephemeris. Every one of these apps has its own learning curve to use successfully. We suggest taking them on one at a time.
Finally we should mention that analog alternatives exist. Quaintly, they are named “books”. Here are a few we can recommend. Be warned: Unlike almost every other book links in the universe, these links do not take you to Amazon. Rather, they take you to Better World Books, a much more satisfying and useful book site. They don't ship as fast as Amazon but, bless them, they are not Amazon.
For birds we recommend Ken Kaufman's book although other fine bird guides exist such as David Sibley's. (And should you be curious about what it it's like to be a bird, Sibley can help with that too.)
Don't overlook bugs when you are out there identifying. Kenn Kaufman will help with that. He also does butterflies. We had a Weidermeyer's Admiral here yesterday!
Not only can you try to spot birds in those trees, you can also identify the trees.
We'll leave you in the night sky. Probably hundreds of books exist to help with identifying the constellations, planets, and stars but by far the best one is Stars: The Stars A New Way to See Them Don't be fooled because it looks like a kid's book. It was written by H.A. Rey and, yes, he is the author of the “Curious George” books. It's a book for every age.
That's it from here. Get out there and identify something. And have fun doing it!